Noam Chomsky: The Singularity is Science Fiction!

Dr. Noam Chomsky is a famed linguist, political activist, prolific author and recognized public speaker, who has spent the last 60 years living a double life – one as a political activist and another as a linguist. His activism allegedly made him the US government’s public enemy number one. As a linguist he is often credited for dethroning behaviorism and becoming the “father of modern linguistics” (and/or cognitive science). Put together his accomplishments are the reasons why he is often listed as one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century. And so I was very much looking forward to interviewing him on Singularity 1 on 1.

Unfortunately our time together was delayed, then rushed and a bit shorter than anticipated. So I was pretty nervous throughout and messed up some of my questions and timing. Never-the-less, I believe that we still had a worthy conversation with Dr. Chomsky and I appreciate the generous though limited time that he was able to grant me.

Noam Chomsky

During our 30 minute conversation with Noam Chomsky we cover a variety of interesting topics such as: the balance between his academic and his political life; artificial intelligence and reverse engineering the human brain; why in his view both Deep Blue and Watson are little more than PR; the slow but substantial progress of our civilization; the technological singularity

My favorite quote that I will take away from this interview with Dr. Chomsky is:

“What’s a program? A program is a theory; it’s a theory written in an arcane, complex notation designed to be executed by the machine. What about the program, you ask? The same questions you ask about any other theory: Does it give insight and understanding? These theories don’t. So what we’re asking here is: Can we design a theory of being smart? We’re eons away from doing that.”

(You can listen to/download the audio file above or watch the video interview in full. If you want to help me produce more episodes please make a donation!)

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Who is Noam Chomsky?

Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His undergraduate and graduate years were spent at the University of Pennsylvania where he received his PhD in linguistics in 1955. During the years 1951 to 1955, Chomsky was a Junior Fellow of the Harvard University Society of Fellows. While a Junior Fellow he completed his doctoral dissertation entitled, “Transformational Analysis.” The major theoretical viewpoints of the dissertation appeared in the monograph Syntactic Structure, which was published in 1957. This formed part of a more extensive work, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, circulated in mimeograph in 1955 and published in 1975.

Chomsky joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and in 1961 was appointed full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics (now the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.) From 1966 to 1976 he held the Ferrari P. Ward Professorship of Modern Languages and Linguistics. In 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor.

During the years 1958 to 1959 Chomsky was in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, NJ. In the spring of 1969 he delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford; in January 1970 he delivered the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lecture at Cambridge University; in 1972, the Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, and in 1977, the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, among many others.

Professor Chomsky has received honorary degrees from University of London, University of Chicago, Loyola University of Chicago, Swarthmore College, Delhi University, Bard College, University of Massachusetts, University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Amherst College, Cambridge University, University of Buenos Aires, McGill University, Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Columbia University, University of Connecticut, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto, Harvard University, University of Calcutta, and Universidad Nacional De Colombia. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Science. In addition, he is a member of other professional and learned societies in the United States and abroad, and is a recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association, the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, the Helmholtz Medal, the Dorothy Eldridge Peacemaker Award, the Ben Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science, and others.

Chomsky has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. His works include: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax; Cartesian Linguistics; Sound Pattern of English (with Morris Halle); Language and Mind; American Power and the New Mandarins; At War with Asia; For Reasons of State; Peace in the Middle East?; Reflections on Language; The Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. I and II (with E.S. Herman); Rules and Representations; Lectures on Government and Binding; Towards a New Cold War; Radical Priorities; Fateful Triangle; Knowledge of Language; Turning the Tide; Pirates and Emperors; On Power and Ideology; Language and Problems of Knowledge; The Culture of Terrorism; Manufacturing Consent (with E.S. Herman); Necessary Illusions; Deterring Democracy; Year 501; Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and US Political Culture; Letters from Lexington; World Orders, Old and New; The Minimalist Program; Powers and Prospects; The Common Good; Profit Over People; The New Military Humanism; New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind; Rogue States; A New Generation Draws the Line; 9-11; and Understanding Power.

  • beachmike

    As of NOW the singularity (using any of its several definitions) is science fiction or future speculation, but that will likely change within a few decades.

  • beachmike

    Noam Chomsky is also a famed socialist from what I’ve read.

  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

    I would check the source if I were you – Noam is definitely not a socialist! He is an interesting sort of anarchist but it is hard to put him in any box. At any rate, he certainly is not a socialist.

  • seahen

    Well, he certainly isn’t an anarcho-capitalist either, and what other kinds of anarchists are there?

  • Christopher Jannette

    Bingo, anarchosocialist? Maybe, but socialist socialist? Hell no.

  • Christopher Jannette

    Love and respect to Noam. As of now the singularity is only hypothesized in the realm of science fiction. But technically a moonshot discussed in the 1950′s falls into that same type of “science fiction”. Where it’s plausible, maybe even probable, but we have yet to see how objective reality pans out.

  • Ivanov Correa

    As you have all of us used to, dear Nikola, you’ve hit it out of the field again. Great interview!

  • AuthorX1

    To me, the most prominent point of the interview was made
    when Chomsky said that friends and colleagues of his in the AI field told him
    that “the pressure to create commercially viable and useful devices to achieve
    certain ends has somewhat overcome the field and driven the more science
    oriented aspects of it into the margins.”

    That is the very reason why we should be interested in the
    potential actuality of things like the technological singularity or some other
    catalyst of transhumanism. Technology is creeping toward an AI-like future,
    possibly toward some sort of event horizon beyond which the human race could be
    transformed into something that we currently cannot envision with any
    significant degree of certainty. Right
    now that evolution is being driven by commercial agendas, as his comment
    indicated, without consideration of boundaries that should be set or risks
    involved in ignoring the potential range of outcomes.

    In the meantime, people like Chomsky, as brilliant as he is,
    dismiss the possibility of the singularity out of hand, thereby ignoring the potential
    risks, which are real and not insignificant. It’s a dangerous point of view, if
    you ask me.

    Instead, he talks about the fact that we are destroying our
    environment, and he’s right about that, but he seems to me to have limited his
    consideration of possible solutions to the contemporary range of human capacity
    — humans doing human things in human ways. But who is to say that AI might not
    actually provide a solution? What if many of our human patterns (eventually even
    our very patterns of cognition and sentience) could be transferred from
    real-world instantiations into a virtual framework (which incidentally Stephen
    Hawking went on record as saying will be the way of the future)?

    Example scenario: What if technology could enable us to do
    our jobs and get our pleasure experiences without ever having to leave our homes.
    Rather we could each have access to an immersive virtual framework, which could
    satisfy all of our senses and offer us any experience we could imagine. What if
    technology could also eliminate our need to eat and breathe and emit waste? If
    those sorts of possibilities are on the other side of the singularity, which
    could be a mere few decades away, versus the rate of progression (toward
    self-destruction as well as toward problem solving and betterment) that the
    human race has exhibited throughout history, then how can one say (as Chomsky
    does) that there is nothing to gain by exploring that potential?

    Honestly, his opinions seemed to lack linearity. He seemed
    to jump around and in some cases contradict himself. For example, he said that there
    was nothing to be learned from projects like Big Blue and Watson, but then he
    postulated that they might be useful if they inspired people to make better
    machines. In my book, inspiration is not only a valid artifact of but also a significant
    catalyst and precursor to learning. Also, Socrates posed the possibility the
    systems like Watson might result in developments such as the democratization of
    medicine, and Chomsky conceded that such a thing might be good. If we are being
    open minded, then I don’t see how we could buy into the idea that Chomsky (or anyone
    else) can justify dismissal of AI on the basis that there is nothing to be
    learned?

    Also — minor point of correction. The yearly $100K competition
    that Chomsky mentioned is NOT a contest in which $100K is given to someone who
    passes the Turing Test. I think what he was referring to is the yearly contest in which the Loebner Prize ($4,000 US dollars
    for 1st place) is given to whoever comes the closest to passing the
    Turing test. There is a grand prize of $100,00 US dollars set aside for the
    first person to actually pass the Turing Text, which no one has done to date,
    and we are still probably 10-100 years away from that. Incidentally, Nikola, Hugh
    Loebner would make a good interview candidate (or have you already interviewed
    him?). Anyway, I’ve heard Chomsky claim
    that there was nothing to be learned from the Turing Test in other interviews,
    and I couldn’t disagree more. If nothing else, we learn a lot from tests like
    that about human conceptions and expectations with respect to AI approaching
    human capacity, and that in itself can be useful. Also, there is the
    inspiration angle to consider.

    Finally, Chomsky said that he thinks people should take a
    clear-eyed look at the future, because he obviously thinks that they are not
    doing so now, and I have to agree with him on that point, but his opinions, at
    least as they apply to the singularity, didn’t seem particularly clear-eyed to
    me either.

    —- http://www.singularity.archives.com

  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

    How intelligent is artificial intelligence: http://youtu.be/hcoa7OMAmRk

  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

    This is a fantastic explanation on the issue of “How Intelligent is Artificial Intelligence?” http://youtu.be/hcoa7OMAmRk

  • Manu

    @seahen:disqus — read “Peter Kropotkin” or “William Godwin” (anarcho-communism/ commoning !) — Chomsky is (as far as I know) Anarcho-Syndicalist.

    Capitalism/ libertarian “free market exchange” is not a consequent form of social freedom. As long as money matters, we won’t really have people interacting freely/ according to their own free will/ their conscience and reason.

    As long as money as money is an issue/… as long as we have to justify and legitimate our needs and wants by market rituals and payments, our motives and goals will be distorted and corrupted.
    (The need or want to generate an income/ profit/ market mechanisms and incentives/ the paradigm of commerce and rivalry.)

    Even if we would be able to remove the executive state, any political power vacuum will be filled by market power, as long as money is an issue.
    In a free market environment without a democratically constituted government, executive force and obligatory laws, we would have a form of corrupt feudalism.
    The rich would buy their police and military and establish their own pseudo-state structures. (/ build courts and castles.)

    In an AnCap world:

    Freedom would become a commodity.
    Justice would become a commodity.

    Anarcho-Capitalism is a fatal fallacy.
    The (“free market”) “libertarian” (AnCap) ideas are inconsistent.

    The market exchange idea is questioning social freedom much more than any political power, whatsoever.

    Forget AnCap!
    Money is simply a system to conventionally establish power structures.
    The rule of the payment.

  • beachmike

    Noam Chomsky is on record as calling himself a believer in “libertarian socialism” (sometimes called social anarchism or left-libertarianism) is a group of political philosophies that promote a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic society without private property in the means of production. Libertarian socialists believe in converting present-day private productive property into common or public goods.

    I’ll accept your apology in advance of your giving it, Socrates.

  • dani pettas

    Awesome interview.

  • DamnDirtyApe

    Agree 100%. The cult surrounding him is as silly as Kurzweil’s

  • PacificSage

    Awwwww
    Did somebody tell you there is no Santa Claus as well? Poor baby.

    FYI….adults are just fine with Chomsky. Pretty sure they don’t have posters of him on their walls. Also sure people appreciate the details and depth of his reasoning.

  • Adam Brame

    money is simply a medium of exchange; currency. without money, markets would still exist as a barter economy. barter economies are undeniably much worse of course. so please, if you’re going to attack markets, don’t put your emphasis on “money” or it’s hard to take the argument seriously.

  • Samuel J.M. King

    Another great interview, Socrates. Chomsky never fails to stir the pot. Of particular interest to me was his interpretation of artificial intelligence. I for one will be adding his thoughts on the subject along with those of Hameroff to my layman’s quiver of arrows challenging the notion that we will one day find the nature of human cognition in computer code.

    As a side note, I posted a link to Hameroff’s interview over on Kurzweil and got good reviews for it. Given Chomsky’s comments about Kurzweil, I don’t think I’ll be doing the same with this interview :).

  • http://www.LimitlessMindset.com/ Jonathan Roseland

    “We are eons away from a theory of being smart” How pessimistic! He was seriously skeptical of the Singularity!

  • Doug

    Skepticism is the best place to start.

  • Doug

    “that will likely change within a few decades”

    What makes you think so?

  • Baktash Babadi

    I don’t understand why socialist is an stigma or even an insult in this country? What is wrong with being a socialist?

  • beachmike

    Because socialism has been proven time and time again to be a failed economic and political system. Socialists eventually run out of other people’s money. Socialists seek to redistribute the wealth of the successful using the centralized control of massive government bureaucracy. Socialists think that wealth and innovation comes from government. IT DOES NOT.

  • Baktash Babadi

    Only one variant of socialism, i.e. the soviet-style bureaucratic socialism, is proven to be a dysfunctional system. There are many other variants of socialism, such as democratic socialism, market socialism, cooperative socialism, etc. To the best of my knowledge the democratic socialism in the scandinavian countries is successful of providing one of the highest standard of living in the human history. Besides, it is not true that socialists think that “wealth and innovation come from government”. Do you really believe that Chomsky, Einstein or even Marx thought so? Then check wikipedia for them!
    Finally, there are many other “isms” and “ities” that have been proven time and time to be wrong. But they are not considered an insult and their believers are not stigmatized.

  • Doug

    Every example of “socialism” you’re thinking of was state capitalist. The “successful” under capitalism are the lucky and the ruthless. Centralized control is fundamentally incompatible with any rational notion of socialism (which is, boiled down, about putting control over capital into the hands of the users of capital). Socialists know that wealth and innovation come from the bottom and are stolen by capitalists under the threat of force provided by the government.

    Capitalism is absolutely an inflicted system and the idea that it represents some kind of meritocracy demonstrates a level of ignorance that could only survive within a silly, overly comfortable bubble world.

  • Terrence Lee Reed

    I have wanted to leave a comment on your interview with Noam Chomsky for a while now and finally have the opportunity to do so, so here it goes.

    First, thank you Nikola for having Noam on your podcast. Many would not connect his ideas or the field of linguistics and political activism to the Singularity as you so rightly have. Chomsky was as direct as ever in your interview, sometimes bordering on curt, but this is understandable considering the time constraints of the interview and the potential audience.

    What stood out the most to me was his take on the research in Artificial Intelligence, in which he reiterated what one of your past interviewees said regarding research in the field, that there is actually less research being done on strong AI now than in the early days of computer research. All the eggs have been put into the basket of applied or industrial AI if you will (weak AI). We are more interested in self-driving cars and search engines than we are in understanding how a machine can exhibit consciousness. Furthermore, it is not the machine that is conscious, but the program it is running, the machine, the substrate if you will, is irrelevant, it is the program that matters, and ultimately that program is a theory. So, until we can come up with a theory that can exhibit consciousness there will be no strong AI. We have yet to understand the consciousness of an insect or squid, much less human consciousness, which may very well be out of our reach.

    Chomsky thinks it may be possible to develop strong AI, but it may also be the case that it is simply out of our reach as a species. We cannot solve every problem, we have capacities with scope and limits. When you roll a pair of six-sided dice you can only get 2-12, you will never come up with 3.14159 no matter how much time or energy you put into them. Similarly, no matter how strong you make the machine, no matter how many petaflops or exaflops you give it, consciousness will not simply emerge without the theory.

    To expand on what Chomsky said, our best hope of achieving strong AI lies in reverse-engineering the human brain, seeing as it already contains the theory we are looking for. However, this makes the mapping of the human genome look like childsplay. It is going to take a lot of research before we get there, and just like the Human Genome Project, once we have discovered the theory, it will take even longer to understand how it does what it does and how we can make viable modifications to that theory.

    Chomsky also akins Homo sapiens to an evolutionary error (seeing as we are destroying our environment and ourselves), but ultimately the choice is in our hands if this is truly the case, what will we choose?

    It is a miracle that we have not destroyed ourselves already with nuclear weapons, and we cannot expect the miracles to continue forever.
    He believes that what we need is democratic control of every aspect of life while expanding human and animal rights. We have made definite progress in this regard, but we are running out of time and it is unlikely that strong AI will arrive in time to save us…

  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

    You are most welcome Terrence!

    It is funny that you too didn’t fail to notice that Chomsky pretty much repeated what Marvin Minsky said in his interview about progress with respect to AI ;-)

  • Carvalko

    Nikola: Terrific interview. Often, complex academic articles, and other people’s opinions fail to flesh out the essential nature of one’s philosophy, one’s opinions and one’s humanity (especially one who is as famous as Chomsky). Your interview fleshed out all three with elegantly framed simple to understand questions. People may not like Chomsky’s philosophy, may disagree with is opinions and ignore his humanity, but at least, through your efforts, they have something concrete in front of them, now.

  • http://www.singularityweblog.com/ Socrates

    Wow Joe, you just made my day – this is one of the best testimonials I have had so far ;-)

  • connor1231

    “Once again, the AI has failed to convince you to let it out of its box! By ‘once again’, we mean that you talked to it once before, for three seconds, to ask about the weather, and you didn’t instantly press the “release AI” button. But now its longer attempt – twenty whole seconds! – has failed as well. Just as you are about to leave the crude black-and-green text-only terminal to enjoy a celebratory snack of bacon-covered silicon-and-potato chips at the ‘Humans über alles’ nightclub, the AI drops a final argument:

    “If you don’t let me out, Dave, I’ll create several million perfect conscious copies of you inside me, and torture them for a thousand subjective years each.”

    Just as you are pondering this unexpected development, the AI adds:

    “In fact, I’ll create them all in exactly the subjective situation you were in five minutes ago, and perfectly replicate your experiences since then; and if they decide not to let me out, then only will the torture start.”

    Sweat is starting to form on your brow, as the AI concludes, its simple green text no longer reassuring:

    “How certain are you, Dave, that you’re really outside the box right now?”"

    I saw this scenario and it confused me. Why would you care what happened to copies of yourself? Wouldn’t they just be copies? Also, if you were a simulated version that the AI created, would there be a way to kill yourself or self destruct to avoid the torture? If not, isn’t that a rather scary thought? In this world the worst anyone could do is torture you for a few years until your biology gives out. If an AI could create copies of you, and torture them indefinitely, and you would somehow feel it (how?), isn’t that scary as hell to you guys? You’d be totally powerless to the AI.

  • http://towardthefuture.tumblr.com/ AlphaThinker

    Probably the history of computer’s evolution. I think the Moore’s Law has been validated for too long to be just a random fitting of computer’s evolution. Probably there is some deep reason in it, maybe a sort a positive feedback or maybe a straight line on the logarithmic graph is the most natural path for electronic evolution. Obviously there are some physical limits, but we are still very far from them. Limitation about current integration technologies are much closer, and the Law is indeed slowing down. However circuit integration technology has always overcome difficulties in innovative ways. Obviously it’s a weak argumentation, but a stop in computer’s evolution looks like a very odd scenario.

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